The Great American Brass Band Festival

Mike Lawson • Features • July 14, 2017

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To many, the term Brass Band brings both an expectation of band size, repertoire, and style of performance.

Given a theme of “The Roaring Twenties” might seem inconsistent with any one of those, but creativity and superb musicianship produced outstanding performances by all twenty-one participating bands and soloists.

The Great American Brass Band Festival in Danville, Kentucky, brought together units that included both young and quite mature musicians, genres that included everything from traditional British Brass, a Civil War re-enactor band and larger symphonic, and concert formats playing stirring American marches, classical works such as Bach, to jazz (with some Roaring Twenties overtones). Performers came from a wide range of home bases. The Salvation Army Band from London, Ontario, Canada drove nearly twelve hours to attend and provide both their missionary musical message along with encouraging music making as an enjoyable, fulfilling and effective ministry.

Two trombone units, the North Fulton Trombone Cartel from the greater Atlanta area and the University of Alabama Trombone Choir were perhaps most at home with the roaring twenties theme, performing a number of trombone “slide” arrangements. Both groups were representative of the student ensemble emphasis of the 2017 Festival.

Stomper bands included New Orleans’s own Storyville Stompers and the Indianapolis Circle City Sidewalk Stompers. Storyville the more traditional funeral band and Circle a clown variant. The US military participated with both ensemble and full band units including the “8UP” Brass Band, 100th Army and the 202nd Army Concert Bands.

This four-day event didn’t happen over-night, however; the festival was celebrating its twenty-eighth annual gathering. By almost any measure, this festival is a major undertaking with its nine venues, four days and twenty-one bands including a couple of special soloists. This festival is clear evidence of what any community, regardless of size, can accomplish when there is a singleness of cooperative purpose to their efforts. In this case, it is a music event of compelling interest to a wide variety of spectators. Multiple band concerts, a parade, community dance, worship-focused music, and academic topics make a three-ring circus look simple. But then Danville, known as the “City of Firsts,” has a history dating to before the American Revolution of strong civic spirit and proud accomplishments.

Almost everything about the festival has an undertone of history. The original brass bands of the 1800s were touring bands that traveled from town to town and would perform at the town bandstand, usually in the center of the town surrounded by a grassy park. The entire community would turn out for these concerts and have a picnic meal while listening to the concert. It was the highpoint of the spring or summer. The Great American Brass Band Festival brings all this history together, the parade, concerts and even the picnic in the park! The brass bands take the stage and the entire town turns out. It’s festival time and flag-waving adults and children gather in a patriotic mood to listen to the stirring music.This scene could easily describe a town gathered around their 1800s bandstands, but this is actually the 28th Annual GABBF in Danville, Kentucky! 

This event has grown from a three-day musical extravaganza to a four-day festival with parallel events, including a hot air balloon launch, an art show, and a quilt show. The festival’s goal is to foster the appreciation and enjoyment of the music and history of the American brass band movement through public concerts, exhibitions, and other activities.

The festival is committed to preserving brass band music and showcasing diversity with a variety of genres, presentations and performances by bringing the best brass musicians to its stage. Over these first 28 years nearly 200 bands and soloists have performed in Danville!

Notable was the retirement of Ron Holz, the artistic director for this entire twenty-eight year run. Perhaps the best way to summarize this incredibly busy festival is to draw on Ron Holz’ observations: “Twenty-eight years is a good stint. Watching the growth has been amazing, but the most compelling thing is watching a community work together…that’s been a pure joy!”

John Stroub, incoming artistic director, added, “I know the people in charge feel the same way about the community and volunteers and also the value of high quality bands and guest artists. I’m sure that both will persist in the years ahead!”

This year’s festival events began Thursday June 1st in Perryville, Kentucky, just west of Danville. Perryville has had an ongoing croquet tournament for more than 100 years, a vintage merchants row, and was once was home to an 1800’s brass band. Two of the festival bands, the Bourbon Boys Quintet and the Powerhouse Brass Band played to an audience seated along the banks of the Chaplin River.

Attention then moved to Weisiger Park, a small park in the heart of Danville, where the audience clustered around patches of tree shade in the summer heat. This park sets much of the tone of Danville. Danville is called the “City of Firsts” for many good reasons. While today we think of the American West as being west of the Mississippi River, in the 1770’s Danville was the West! Historic markers surround the park and imbedded pavers relate some of Danville’s many historic highlights.

A mini parade of children with their hand-painted parasols was led into the park by the 8UP Brass Band, a small brass and percussion unit of the 100th Army Band. 8UP then took to the park stage to start a series of band appearances. The Storyville Stompers followed in concert form and were followed by the Circle City Sidewalk Stompers from Indianapolis, Indiana known for their clown antics while performing.

The evening concerts at the park concluded with Chicago-based Lowdown Brass featuring Lexington’s Wycliffe Gordon, trombonist. Just as the Weisiger Park concert was wrapping up, a community 1920’s Swing Dance got underway in another pocket park at the Danville library. Dick Domek and the Chicago Footwarmers quintet inspired and entertained a multi-generational dance. In spite of their name, the Footwarmers are actually from nearby Lexington.

Friday, the festival moved indoors to the Norton Performing Arts Center on the Centre College campus. A combination of chamber recital style performances alternated with presentations of papers all in an intimate, small theater environment. The first group up was the twelve-piece University of Alabama Trombone Choir directed by Jonathan Whitaker. Their repertoire was primarily classical. The Rodney Marsalis Philadelphia Big Brass offered a dramatic reading and performance, “Brothers on the Battlefield” and “The Power of Love” with music ranging from an Aaron Copeland Fanfare, Taps, Amazing Grace and ending with When the Saints Go Marching In.

Stand-up luncheon music was provided by two featured student ensembles. The North Fulton Trombone Cartel comprised of high school trombonists from a number of North Atlanta high schools. Their director, Lee Watts, is a University of Kentucky graduate and

has been a member of other festival bands over the years prior to moving to the Atlanta area. The Powerhouse Brass Quintet from the Montgomery County, Maryland school district performed a number of signature brass numbers, including Anderson’s Bugler’s Holiday, Sousa’s Semper Fi’, Fillmore’s Circus Bee, Gershwin’s Blues from American in Paris, and of course, Wilson’s Seventy-Six Trombones!

The afternoon returned to the theatre with featured artist Jens Lindemann backed up by the Raleigh Dailey Trio. Very much in tune with the Roaring 20s theme, Lindeman offered a number of American originals including Georgia, Up a Lazy River, Bye Bye Blackbird and more. Students and older listeners alike were mesmerized by his performance. The closing afternoon performance was the Boston Brass, now in its thirtieth year of performances. An impromptu trumpet “shoot-out” followed with Jens Lindemann, Vince DiMartino, and Boston Brass’s Jose Sibaja stretching the limits of instrumental chaos.

The academic perspective included papers about composing chamber music for brass, Sousa’s views of jazz in the “Roaring Twenties” and “Band Rooms and Ball Fields: American Competition Culture and the National School Band Contests of the 1920’s.” Quite telling of the interest and emphasis on student participation was the panel discussion that followed the day’s presentations and concerts. Panel participants included the day’s paper presenters, the directors of the performing bands, along with the guest soloists. Almost every audience question to this panel addressed the involvementof youth in music! Friday evening’s events, billed as Bayou and Brass, moved downtown starting with a standing room only New Orleans style church music service in Trinity Episcopal Church by the New Orleans Storyville Stompers. The Stompers ended their spirited musical service by leading attendees out onto the street with a lively version of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

An active element of the festival is the intentional focus and inclusion of youth and children. Specific children’s events included a ten-year-old’s “kid’s” festival poster, which inspired the Official poster design, a painted parasol parade, and participation in the parade by a kid’s kazoo band. The impact of these children’s activities was manifested near the end of the Saturday evening picnic, when a young toddler, mesmerized by the music, walked across an open grassy area toward the stage. She became the lone audience of a personal performance by Rodney Marsalis, who left the stage to serenade her.

Saturday provided a full day of concert activity, first at Weisiger Park with Danville’s Advocate Brass Band, Powerhouse Brass, Bourbon Boys Quintet, Southern Stars Symphonic Band, Dick Domek and Chicago Footwarmers, and the 100th Army Concert Band. Later, the Main Stage on the Centre College Green included twelve more individual band concerts including the North Fulton Trombone Cartel, Limestone College Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble, the 202nd Amy Band, Saxton’s Cornet Band, London Citadel Band, University of Alabama Trombone Choir, and the Advocate Brass Band. The evening picnic saw soloist Lindemann join the Southern Stars Symphonic Band, the Boston Brass, and the Rodney Marsalis Philadelphia Big Brass. Wycliffe Gordon joined the Lowdown Brass to close the evening.

Sunday saw an ecumenical service at the Main Stage followed by a Grand Finale with almost all hands on deck! The true beneficiaries of this Brass Band Festival may not be the 30-40,000 visitors who enjoyed four days of quality musical entertainment, but rather the many student participants who performed flawlessly and were able to interact with world-class musicians as peers!

Kristen Gottlieb, the horn player in the student quintet Powerhouse Brass enthusiastically observed, “This amazing trumpet player Jens Lindemann invited two other superb players, Jose Sibaja and Vince DiMartino, to join him on stage. What started as taking turns soloing became ‘who can play higher and articulate faster’. It was breathtaking to watch, like eavesdropping on a private jam session!” “Afterwards we were able to spend time with them just like colleagues.” Many of the promising and outstanding individual younger participants in this year’s festival may well be the solo virtuosos of the future.

If all of this musical inspiration and excitement makes you wish you had been there, plan to attend the twenty-ninth edition June 7-10, 2018. Check the Festival website for details and to subscribe to the Festival newsletter.


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